Let’s face it. As much as we may like or even love a saint like Julian of Norwich, who is remembered each year on May 8, most of us will admit she was a little out there.
One of my favorite theologians of youth ministry, Kenda Creasy Dean, in Almost Christian, has an apt way of describing such a holy person: “If the Bible is any indication, holy people make us uncomfortable. They take sacrificial risks on behalf of others; they are disarmingly wise and, often, disconcertingly weird. They expose us with their honesty.”
A venerated mystic
She was a mystic, no doubt, and although never beatified or canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, is venerated in the Lutheran tradition.
We can cherish and remember her especially as perhaps the author of the first known work by a woman in English.
But I think of her first and foremost as a mystic — artistic, poetic, anchored, bizarre, luminous.
Her sacrificial risks included envisioning God, and even Jesus, in motherly terms. She challenged our conception of a wrathful God, instead positing God as love all the way down, and sin as simply part of the painful learning process we need in order to love more fully, in the manner of Christ.
The mystics of the world often share much in common — they are in some ways the true meeting grounds for the world faiths.
I admire their exploration of the mystical landscape, but I have typically not thought of myself as mystic.
Hymn verses like “mystic sweet communion” are fun to sing but not existentially relevant.
I’m not a mystic, but
So even as we commemorate her this week, I feel some distance from her, for I am, as far as that goes, no mystic.
However, I am reminded that much of my sermon preparations are of the mystical sort.
Without going into the neuroscience or phenomenology of mysticism too deeply, I’m just going to note a few ways that preparing to preach feels like my closest approximation of the mystical and the numinous (and I imagine Julian’s writing process may have followed some similar patterns).
Can you find a touch point in your own life where Julian’s mystical sensibilities corresponds with your own experience?
The Wow Factor: At least a couple of times per week, as I am sitting with and studying Scripture in preparation to preach on it, I just stop, think about it and exclaim, “Wow. Wow. Wow.” The Word is so amazing in its depth and clarity, simplicity and complexity, wonder and mundanity, that all I can say is, “Wow.” Often when I’m driving or walking to church Sunday morning, the sermon pregnant in my thoughts and heart, I think to myself, “I wish everyone who hears this sermon can feel and think what I’m feeling and thinking right now, which is much less about individual points or content of what I will preach, but rather the sheer awesomeness of the text, and God in the text.”
The Where-did-it-come-from Factor: It never happens that I don’t have a sermon. Often times I have two, three, or even four sermons, that could be preached on a given text. If you take into account all three (four) of the lectionary texts, if I spend time studying them, there could be even more sermons ready at hand. Do I do this? No way. I just till and water the field, and like Julian’s visions, it is God who gives the growth.
The Where-is-this-coming-from Factor: This is similar to but different from point 2. This is the time when parts of the sermon simply come to me while I’m preaching the sermon, not prior to. Often some of the best parts of a sermon come right in the moment, and I have no idea where they came from. Certainly, I did my best studying and reading and praying all week, but in the moment, it’s like wave-upon-wave of gift.
The Wonder Factor: I might also call this the body factor, because it has to do with the overall feeling preparing to preach can have. This doesn’t happen every week, but often it is just this warm feeling that hits me in the lower part of my brain, relaxes my shoulder, deepens and quickens my breath. It is the closest I have ever come to what some describe as that “God picked me up and hugged me” feeling they have had that is their own personal mystical experience. And I further admit that I’m glad this is the way faith embodies itself in me, because the experiences Julian had, though wondrous to me, also scare me.
The Wacky Factor: I’m most likely to have these discoveries and feeling if I attend to what is most strange, weird or wacky in the text. I also think that when you seek the mystical you won’t find it, but when you are busily engaged in other things, it will sneak up on you. God is like that.
It’s hard to underestimate how wacky Julian may have seemed to her neighbors and peers, or even to herself. Especially, perhaps, her hope that all would be saved, in the process reconceptualizing precisely how it is that God saves and how we participate in Christ’s suffering work.
All of which, is, I think, an indirect way of talking about Julian’s universalist tendencies, which arise not out of a commitment to universalism in the abstract, but instead an intuition of God’s wow factor, wondrousness, wherewithal and wackiness. Universalism doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Clint Schnekloth is the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Ark.